Beethoven, Mahler and the Quest for Simplicity
“My time will come”, wrote Gustav Mahler in a letter on 31 January 1902. Those words manifest an unshakeable faith in the future of his works – a conviction Mahler shared with Ludwig van Beethoven, whose Violin Concerto received the following review in a Viennese paper in 1807: “The connoisseurs’ verdict is unanimous: while conceding the piece’s many beauties, it must also be acknowledged that the continuity is often completely disrupted and that the endless repetitions of a few commonplace passages could easily grow tedious.” Even though Beethoven undertook revisions to his Opus 61 after the premiere, he did not live to experience its success: the 13-year-old Joseph Joachim scored a triumph with the concerto in 1844 at a London concert conducted by Mendelssohn, and in further performances during the 1850s he became, de facto, the style-setting Beethoven interpreter.
Where your gaze leads you: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto
Like the contemporaneous G major Piano Concerto, this work’s difficulty lies in its simplicity. Following on from Mozart’s late contributions to the genre, Beethoven creates lyrical music of great intimacy and defines the virtuoso concerto as a concertante symphony in which the soloist is embedded as primus inter pares, a first among equals. Largely eschewing dramatic effects, the composition almost seems obsessed with the single note D with which it begins, sounded four times by the unaccompanied timpani. This unconventional opening could easily be interpreted as the introduction to a march in which Beethoven was following French models for the solo concerto. On the other hand, this D is introduced so serenely and made the basis of such a sunny melody that military associations hardly suggest themselves at first. But when the underlying pulse of the long first movement is vehemently reinforced, when the consistent rhythm portentously appears in the distant brass at the end of the development, when everything is diverted to a pallid G minor, then the idyll seems threatened from without, corresponding to circumstances prevailing in the Napoleonic era.
Before the violin settles down into the playful final rondo, which comes nearest to meeting expectations of virtuosic feats, Beethoven grants the soloist a remote vista that in the first movement could at best have been perceived as a scenic backdrop – far removed from the tutti strings’ supporting pizzicati, “the most overwhelming expression of vastness, of seeing into the distance”, in the judgement of Theodor W. Adorno. The gaze of those who can see far beyond their own time.
Seven decades in Vienna separate the death of Beethoven and the beginning of Mahler’s tenure as court opera director. This timespan brought such drastic changes that one might say that Mahler’s Vienna had more in common with today’s Austrian capital than with the adopted home of his great forerunner. Nevertheless, for a conductor at the end of the 19th century, Beethoven was the measure of all things: in the opera house with Fidelio, in the concert hall with the symphonies, which Mahler performed in his controversial retouched scoring. Obviously, Mahler the symphonist also referenced Beethoven and what he called his “internal programmes”. Although the two composers had nothing in common with respect to creative development, it can be fairly stated that Mahler, like Beethoven, composed his first symphony out of years of experience, even if it turned into a work in progress. Five years passed between the first preliminary sketches and the 1889 premiere in Budapest of what he described as a “symphonic poem in two parts”. Not until Mahler brought the work to the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1896 was it called a “symphony”. A crucial step in reaching that point was the elimination of the second movement which Mahler undertook before the Berlin performance.
Where the splendid trumpets resound: Mahler’s Blumine movement
Blumine, the discarded piece with its fantasy title, was not rediscovered until much later. The Berliner Philharmoniker played it only once before these concerts, also perhaps because the Andante movement, playing for barely longer than five minutes, is generally considered lightweight, and its deletion by Mahler was motivated by, among other factors, its “manifold reminiscences of salon music” – the contention of musicologist Constantin Floros in his preface to a new edition of the symphony. This judgment may be shared by those who expect monumental inspirations from Mahler. Those, on the other hand, who have in mind some of his intermezzi – such as “Urlicht” from the Second Symphony, “Es sungen drei Engel” from the Third or the Adagietto from the Fifth – will be able to appreciate in this movement the art of the fulfilled musical moment. When the trumpet idyll’s blithe C major turns to A minor and the woodwind articulate restrained grief, a passage from the first song of Das Lied von der Erde is foreshadowed almost literally: it is the introduction to the third stanza, “Das Firmament blaut ewig ...” Because Mahler in Blumine continues the theme on just double bass and oboe in parallel, without middle-register instruments, and takes the movement to its final chord with a wistful grace note – reminiscences or not – he manages to steer well clear of salon music. All the same, his reason for removing this piece from his symphonic first-born could also have chiefly been the difficulty of integrating Blumine into the work as a whole. The movement derives from incidental music Mahler composed in 1884 in Kassel for J. V. von Scheffel’s popular narrative poem Der Trompeter von Säkkingen. Mahler may have wanted to distance himself from a literary source that he disparaged.
Daring deeds and gratification: Mahler’s lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
His attitude was very different towards the poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:Alte deutsche Lieder (The Youth’s Magic Horn: Old German Songs), the collection published in 1806 by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. No other project occupied him over such a long period as his settings of Wunderhorn texts: nine lieder with piano in 1888/89 and 14 further compositions by 1901, in versions with orchestra – initially he had in mind an ensemble of soloists – as well as with piano. A number of Wunderhorn settings also found their way into the earlier symphonies.
While his contemporaries were indulging in décadence, Mahler was searching in these texts for “more nature and life – in other words, the sources of all poetry – as art”, as he wrote in a letter to which he appended Goethe’s essay on the Wunderhorn first edition: “Here art is in conflict with nature, and this developing process, this reciprocal influence, this sense of striving seems to be seeking a goal, a goal it has already achieved.” With his music, Mahler successfully maintained this tension, as the critic Eduard Hanslick recognized early on: “It cannot be ignored that there is a dichotomy between the concept of “folksong” and this artful, superabundant orchestral accompaniment. But Mahler has accomplished this daring deed with extraordinary delicacy and masterly technique.” Astonishing praise for a journalist feared for his scathing reviews... Today’s selection from the Wunderhorn lieder, which were not conceived as a cycle, concentrates on the late, longer and more serious compositions, with one exception: Rheinlegendchen, a classic example of the Mahlerian “dancing song”. Its “leisurely” waltzlike inspiration came first; Mahler then searched the Wunderhorn anthology and found these words to fit the tune.